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Pop quiz: How many emails does the average office worker receive every day?
If you’re like most people, you’re going to Google that phrase to find the answer. And if you’re like most people, you’ll come up with office workers receiving 121 emails every day. It’s a nice stat – quick, digestible, believable and simple. It’s also a great example of how content marketing has come to depend on bad statistics.
Every content marketer knows that “data” makes for better engagement and SEO rankings. How do they know this? It’s marketing “common knowledge,” like sending emails on Tuesdays or making social media feeds about “industry news.”
This has translated to blog authors inserting as many “statistics” in each post as possible. Heck, there are thousands of posts just for statistics, with titles like:
- 100+ Eye-Opening Content Marketing Statistics for 2023
- 30 Content Marketing Statistics You Should Know
- 38 Content Marketing Stats That Every Marketer Needs to Know
- 63 Content Marketing Statistics for 2023
- 149 Must-Know Content Marketing Statistics for 2023
- 35 Latest Content Marketing Statistics For 2023
On some level, this makes sense. Statistics can add credibility to writing, and back up core points. The problem with statistics in content marketing is how they’re used – and where they come from.
The ‘121 Emails’ Problem
Let’s go back to the “121 emails” statistic. You usually find it in posts about email marketing strategy. (It typically backs up a point about capturing your audience’s attention to break through inbox clutter.)
The stat has been repeated so many times that it’s rarely attributed. The fact that”the average office worker receives about 121 emails per day” is a given – a throwaway meant to be consumed and moved past. Google returns about 4,000 results for the term, showing widespread use since 2016 or so.
With luck, you’re seeing the issue here.
Has anyone stopped to think about where “121 emails” comes from? And why would it be consistent through years that included massive societal change?
The answers: “Nope,” and “it wouldn’t.” The number is just kind of … there. In the end, most users will simply skim past it. Whether they assume that it’s proven or garbage can’t be known.
This is exactly the issue with how statistics are used in content marketing. “Data” for marketing blogs has become little more than a game of telephone. Numbers are used not to prove points, but to exist. It’s that “common knowledge” from before – a thing you do because it’s done.
That’s harmful to all marketers. Uncritical repetition of statistics leaves no room for learning or advancement. It just means the same crap is being rehashed and rephrased for cheap organic search traffic. (This problem will only get worse in the age of generative AI.)
So, what’s the source for the “office workers get 121 emails” claim?
Tracking Down the Content Marketing Statistic
While most references to the “121 emails” stat don’t include a source, some do. In particular, FinancesOnline calls out email marketing provider Campaign Monitor as its source. They even include a helpful graphic!
So, that’s a lead!
The next step in tracking down the claim is to find it on Campaign Monitor’s site. A Google search shows the stat appearing in a breathless post on “The Shocking Truth about How Many Emails Are Sent.” (This post appears to have been worked on by an organic search or social media team, since the Open Graph title is a more pedestrian “How Many Emails Are Sent Per Day?”)
The 2019 post uses its own source:
At a personal level, DMR reports show that the average office worker receives 121 emails per day. That’s a lot of emails, and they come in various forms.
The link there is to “Expanded Ramblings,” from DMR. (The site touts itself as “Your Home for Statistics, Fun Facts, and Gadgets.”) The DMR post uses the stat as part of a list … noting that it was last updated in 2015, and linking to City A.M. – “Business news live from the City of London.”
The City A.M. post – again, from 2015 – covers “Inbox anxiety: How to regain control of email.” It cites the source of the stat as “a recent report by the Radicati Group,” with no link provided. Interestingly, it isn’t saying that workers get 121 emails per day. Instead, it says that “the average office worker now sends or receives” that many. (Emphasis mine.)
At this point, we’ve followed the trail through four steps:
- Several posts, including one from FinancesOnline, citing Campaign Monitor
- Campaign Monitor citing an SEO-focused “statistics” blog, which said workers receive 121 emails per day
- The statistics blog citing a London-based commuter paper, which said workers send or receive 121 emails per day
- The London-based commuter paper citing (a decade ago) a market research group
The Original Source
What does the Radicati Group have to say?
Since the timeline and phrasing match, it’s likely that City A.M. got its content marketing statistic from an abstract of the Email Statistics Report: 2014-2018 (PDF). Here, Radicati says that:
Business users send and receive on average 121 emails a day in 2014, and this is expected to grow to 140 emails a day by 2018.
This number is based “on primary research conducted by The Radicati Group, Inc.,” including a “worldwide database,” surveys, and information from vendor briefings. In other words, Radicati is the genesis of the conventional wisdom that workers get 121 emails per day. (FWIW, the stat isn’t included in any form in their 2018 follow-up abstract.)
Statistics in Content Marketing: Why This Matters
If you boil it down, we have:
- A well-intentioned research group publishing findings almost 10 years ago
- Blogs looking for stats picking up their findings
- Other blogs misreading or misinterpreting those blogs
- Thousands more posts thoughtlessly parroting the “information” in the name of “including data”
The snowball effect from out-of-date number to “common marketing knowledge” is clear. And that should be troubling to you! The modern-day blogger’s desire to include “data” in their posts hasn’t added credibility. If anything, it’s reduced it. This is only one small example; what stats or conventional wisdom might also be bunk?
Don’t get me wrong: Backing up blog posts with real-world data is a good thing. But a lazy game of telephone is a bad thing. It erodes readers’ trust, and makes bad information the default.
How many emails to office workers actually get each day in 2023? Who knows! There’s probably good data out there somewhere, but it’s awash in a sea of “121 emails” – a somewhat inaccurate number in 2014, and a worthless one today.
Avoiding Bad Statistics in Content Marketing: Best Practices
If you’re a content marketer, how do you avoid being part of the problem? Here are three best practices for using statistics in your content marketing work.
1. Find the Original Source
Don’t just fall into the mindless “Google-and-cite” trap. It’s not enough to pass the attribution buck by linking somewhere else. Actually read and consume the information you’re giving. If your source cites another source, go a level deeper. If that source cites another source, go another level deeper. Your goal is to find the first time a number or research was published. That’s usually going to be a research firm or someone in academia. When you cite them, try to link readers to the original publication (ideally a journal, white paper or analyst report).
2. Pay Attention to Dates
There isn’t a magic number for when information goes out of date. Pi at 3.14159265 … has been true forever, and will be true forever. But if you’re looking at information about technology or worker behavior, you should be dealing with weeks or months, not years. Just about everything in that sphere from before COVID is worthless. And the rate of change on the internet and in tech is making conventional wisdom from even 2021 and 2022 outdated. A critical eye is necessary here; if it’s out of date, find something newer for your content marketing – or do your own research.
3. Watch for Source Bias
In general, your content marketing data should never be from a company that wants them to be true. Every email provider is going to provide stats on why email marketing gives incredible ROI. Every CRM vendor will point out how organized contact data is the most important thing to a business. Every CDN will tell you how fast-loading images will push your SEO through the roof. Avoid citing these sources; even if their underlying claims are true, they have every reason to fluff the data. If your original source isn’t a research group or someone in academia, be very skeptical before including it in your content marketing work or blog posts.
tl;dr: How to Use Statistics in Content Marketing
If you’re a content marketer, the “121 emails per day” claim should be a cautionary tale. Statistics in your content are good … if they’re good statistics. Don’t fall into the trap of “more data = better.” Actually look into what you’re citing, find the original source, and be skeptical of commercial claims. Doing so will make your content marketing more credible, and help remove misinformation for everyone.
Content Marketing Statistics: FAQs
Yes! Data and statistics do a great job backing up your blog post’s points and building credibility. However, you need to be careful about the stats you use – if they’re not worthwhile, your post loses expertise.
Most of the time, a link suffices. Blogs rarely used footnotes or endnotes. Be sure to include the source’s name, and make sure the link takes the reader as close to the original data as possible.
Try to find the original source whenever possible. Ideally, that will be a researcher, a known research group or analyst, or an academic. Avoid citing “research” from vendors, who have a vested interest in using “data” to sell their product or service.